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What Does it Really Mean to be in Recovery?

Sobriety and recovery are not the same thing. Clean time and wellness are different. Being clean and sober doesn't necessarily equate to a strong recovery. And being abstinent doesn't always mean that we are always well.


These are some of the ideas that are central to the work that I do and how I manage my personal recovery. Just because we have stopped using habit-forming substances (in an abusive or dependent way) or acting out as a result of an addictive behaviour, doesn't mean that we are necessarily hooked into what it means to be in recovery. Clean time and complete abstinence definitely have a place in recovery, but they are not the end goal as much as they are an action towards being in recovery and living from a place of wellness. And this doesn't just mean that we are completely abstinent, but rather that we are in the process of building our emotional and mental resilience, creating new and healthy behaviours, learning to respond to life's stressful and challenging situations, and addressing our unresolved issues and past traumas.


For many people that I work with, engaging in a period of abstinence is an important part of the recovery process to allow your body and brain to heal and recover. And for many, including myself, that may continue to be their choice over the long term. But I don't believe that what we should be aiming for is prolonged periods of clean time or a certain amount of substance-free days, as much as we should be striving to be better. The reason for me saying this is that there really is no end-point to recovery. Having just read Simon Sinek's "The Infinite Game" I believe even more strongly that in order to be well we need to create a more infinite mindset about recovery; aiming not to get to some random point in the future where we can declare that we are the "winner", but to constantly move forward in a way that honours our personal motivation, our why, for being well.


The person who has 10 years of clean time is not beating the person who has 10 days, and we should not in any way be competing against our peers but rather learning from them and being open and willing to look at how we can deepen our personal process in a way that honours our needs, wants and values. Recovery should not be only measured in days, weeks, months or years, but also in more qualitative ways such as self-worth, presence, well-being and inner peace; difficult to measure metrically, but if we are not competing then it's not about how we display to the outside world as much as we experience it for ourselves. It might be difficult to "measure" the health of a relationship, but we know intuitively when we are connected and content with our intimate partners, colleagues, family and friends, without having to give it a numerical score. We might only know that we are feeling inner peace in the absence of anxiety, but again it's about our personal experience and not how we are comparing ourselves to others.


So, recovery is not simply about whether I have managed to string together a certain number of days without a drink, a pill, a line, or a smoke, but how I am showing up in the world. I haven't had a drink or used recreational drugs for more than 13 years, but I wouldn't be able to put up my hand in an NA or AA meeting for all those years, because I haven't been completely clean. I have used tranquilisers (under the care of a doctor), the occasional codeine-based painkiller and even medications to support my weight-loss, but I am clear and focused on what it means for me to be in recovery. I know for sure that being on a low dose of benzodiazepines over a very very very stressful six months during the last year actually ensured, along with my personal recovery work, that I was able to stay well and not choose to drink because I felt that I was completely boxed in and all out of choices. When I say my personal work, this is what I believe to be the five ways we can all stay hooked into a meaningful recovery, and of course there are dozens of options within each of those practices.


I am not the clean time police, and my work is to support my clients in their processes, not to judge them. Not everyone who is well is abstinent and not everyone who is abstinent is well. I have met people with many years of "recovery" who are angry, arrogant and unconscious. While I have met others who are using moderation management or harm reduction to support their wellness, and are doing really well in their lives. And of course this works both ways.


However, I don't believe that it is up to the larger treatment and recovery community to judge what recovery is (or isn't) for everyone. If individuals choose to be part of a mutual-aid support group that sees recovery as complete abstinence, and one chooses to be part of their fellowship, then it goes without saying that honouring the ethos, guidelines and traditions is important and honest. But there are multiple pathways to recovery and they are not all the same.

If we are to be truly well, it's important that we take the time to define what that means for ourselves. "I do not use, misuse or abuse habit-forming substances recreationally or to avoid the stressful and challenging realities of my life" is an intrinsic part of my definition of what recovery means to me, and you don't have to agree with it. You won't find that written in a book or on a poster (that I am aware of) as any part of a recognised programme, but I believe that each of us need to be connected to our personal reasons for wanting to be well. There have been thousands of times over the years when the short-term gain of using to escape, reward, release and relieve would have been much easier than the short-term pain of not using. But knowing the reasons that I choose the discomfort has helped me respond to these situations without reverting to old behaviours. In my previous blog I talked about being able to treat ourselves with compassion, love and care and this is a practise that has helped me stay hooked into my recovery.


Of course, there have been times when I have not been particularly well emotionally, socially, spiritually, physically or mentally, but those are stories for another day. What I am passionate about is that we get clear on our reasons for wanting to be in recovery, not the reasons we don't want to use. It's not about being a Mary Poppins, it's about focusing on what we are moving towards rather than what we are moving away from. It's far easier to get to where we want to be if we are not constantly looking over our shoulder or checking the rear-view mirror. Too much of that and we'll end up tripping over something or driving off the road...


So my questions to you are,

  • How do you see your recovery? And what is important to you in that space?

  • What is it that you are working towards in your life and how does being in recovery support that?

  • When you say no, to the dysfunctional behaviours associated with substance abuse or a process addiction, what are you saying yes to?

  • What can you use to determine how well you are and how strong your recovery is?

Remember, there are no winners in recovery. There are no prizes for first place. And it's not just about sobriety and clean time, it's about how well we are. How you determine what recovery and wellness means to you is an exciting part of unpacking your authentic self. If you are willing to put in the work, make the changes (and the hard choices), and believe yourself to be worthy, then recovery can literally be an opportunity for you to put your best self into the world, knowing who you are and what it is that makes you you.